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Friday, May 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Take a rambling, scenic drive in Southern Oregon and Northern California

Seattle Times travel writer

If you go


Highway 199

Information

For information on things to do and see along Highway 199, see highway199traveler.com and www.visitormags.com/delnorte, the online version of the free Del Norte/Southern Oregon Visitor magazine.

Tourist information is available from Travel Oregon at 800-547-7842 or www.traveloregon.com, and California Tourism at 916-444-4429 or www.visitcalifornia.com.

For information on Oregon Caves National Monument, contact the National Park Service at 541-592-2100 or see www.nps.gov/orca.

Ranger-guided tours are from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily on the hour from May 28-June 17 and on the half-hour until 6 p.m. June 18-Sept. 5 (daily flashlight-only walk at 7 p.m.). No self-guided tours permitted. The caves are closed Nov. 28-March. Fees are $8 for adults and $5.50 for those under 17.

The Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City is at the foot of A Street. Open for tours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, April-October, tides permitting. Adults, $3; children under 12, $1. Call 707-464-3089.

Lodging

The Chateau at the Oregon Caves National Monument. Rates from $80 with breakfast. Call 541-592-3400 or see www.oregoncave.com.

The Out 'n' About Treesort, 300 Page Creek Road, 10 miles southeast of Cave Junction. Lodging in nine treehouses. Rates from $100 with breakfast. Call 541-592-2208 or see www.treehouses.com.

Patrick Creek Lodge, 13950 Highway 199, eight miles east of Gasquet, Calif. Rates starting at $49.50 for one and $89.50 for two. Outdoor pool. Call 707-457-3323,or see www.patrickcreeklodge.com.

Hampton Inn & Suites, 100 A St., Crescent City, Calif. Indoor pool. Rates start at $107 with breakfast through the end of May; $119 in June and $139 in July and August. Call 707-465-5400, or see www.hamptoninn.com.

Camping is available near the caves at the Grayback and Cave Creek campgrounds off State Route 46 in the Siskiyou National Forest (call 541-592-4440) and four campgrounds in the Smith River National Recreation area. Call 707-457-3131.

CAVE JUNCTION, Ore. — Following park ranger Dave Albright through the marble tunnels of the Oregon Caves National Monument is a little like visiting an underground concession stand.

Albright instructs visitors to crouch down as they make their way past the banana grove, catch a glimpse of a wedding cake and salivate at the idea of finding strips of bacon.

"This is better than an amusement park," said Sean Dreger, 7, of Livermore, Calif., as Albright shines a flashlight on a crop of cave popcorn.

Real food, as it turns out, is banned inside the caves, as are drinks, gum, tobacco, tripods, flashlights and canes. What Albright shows off on his 90-minute guided tours are creatively named formations sculpted by seeping, dripping and flowing water.

Dreger's favorite part of the walk: the "ghost room," where the worn-down nubbins of stalactites and stalagmites resemble white-robed figures.

Most Seattleites associate this part of Southern Oregon with nearby Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But dozens of historical and natural finds await those who take a day or two out to explore the surrounding area.

A popular scenic gateway is Highway 199, an 80-mile mountain-to-ocean stretch of road that begins off Interstate 5 at Grants Pass and ends in Crescent City, Calif., on the Pacific Coast.

The chief draw is Oregon Caves National Monument, a 480-acre area of caverns and hiking trails in the Siskiyou Mountains, 50 miles south of Grants Pass.

Remember what it was like to get car sick as a kid? Be prepared for a stomach-churning 20-mile drive to the caves along winding State Route 46 that veers east off Highway 199 in the town Cave Junction.

Formed millions of years ago, the limestone caves were discovered by a hunter and his dog in 1874. Rangers lead 1.5-hour tours through lighted passageways, and starting June 18, once-a-day flashlight-only walks, on a half-mile underground route, pointing out big-eared bats and calcite formations such as the parachutelike flowstone in a room called Paradise Lost.

Arrive early since waits for a tour can be three hours or more in the summer. Sign up at the ranger station near the entrance, then go for a picnic or hike on one of the park trails. Elevations are high — 3,800-5,500 feet — but paths are well-marked and maintained.

If you value romance more than luxury, consider spending the night in the 23-room chateau, built in 1932.

The hotel has a dramatic lobby overlooking a gorge, and the wood beams, double fireplace and cedar bark facade are original. But the radiators clank and the rooms need updating. Mine slanted slightly, causing the bedroom door to close on its own and the shampoo to slide off the shelf above the sink in the bathroom.

Rivers and redwoods

Another idea is to double back along Route 46 and stop at one of a trio of Rogue Valley wineries that offer free tastings. Family-owned Bridgeview Vineyards on Holland Loop Road has picnic spots and a deck overlooking a lake.

Sip your way through summery rieslings to smoky pinots, then plan to spend the night in a treehouse cabin at Out 'n' About Treesort in Takilma, about 10 miles southeast of Cave Junction. Or if you'd rather stay closer to the ground, pick up 199 again as it begins to twist and turn above a canyon that follows the Illinois and Smith rivers. Your destination is the Patrick Creek Lodge, a turn-of-the-century inn and dinner house just across the California border.

"It's haunted upstairs," a local man told me as we sat before the fire on a chilly evening earlier this month. He recalled how his grandmother used to stop here for lunch in the 1920s when it took a day to drive a Model-T from Grants Pass to Crescent City. The current owners have updated the rooms, but the stone fireplace and log-cabin walls in the downstairs sitting room are original.

What about the ghost? "Her name was Maude, and she lived in one of the upstairs rooms," a waitress explained. "She was the wife of one of the previous owners, and she died here. That's all I can tell you."

At the California border, Highway 199, also called the Redwoods Highway, becomes the Smith River Scenic Byway. A paved path leads from Patrick Creek Lodge, under the highway to the river and an adjoining nature trail and campground, part of the Smith River National Recreation Area. There are opportunities for rafting, fishing, hiking and swimming.

At Milepost 17.9, watch for the Darlingtonia Trail, a quarter-mile loop that leads to a bog filled with California pitcher plants, cobra-shaped plants that thrive on soil rich in the serpentine mineral deposits found in the rocks that give the Smith River its clear, green color.

Just past She-She's Cafe and shops selling burl-wood carvings and smoked salmon is the turn off to Howland Hill Road and a 5- to 7-mile detour through old-growth redwood groves. Take time out for a hike on any of the marked trails or admire the huge trees from the car on the slow drive back to 199 at Hiouchi and the ocean beaches.

Working lighthouse

Crescent City is more workaday than quaint, but it's easier on the wallet than the more touristed coastal towns. A double room at the ocean-front Hampton Inn goes for $119 through June including breakfast, free Internet access and use of an indoor pool, sauna and hot tub.

A short walk from the Hampton is the Battery Point Lighthouse built in 1856 to guide logging ships headed to the gold fields. Perched on a hill on an island, it's connected to the mainland at low tide by a narrow spit of sand and rock.

Replaced by a light on the jetty in 1968, the lighthouse was taken over by the Del Norte County Historical Society, which operates it as a museum and a private aid for fishing boats. Volunteer keepers take turns living in its upstairs rooms.

When the tide is out, visitors can reach the lighthouse by walking across driftwood and rocks strewn across the beach. The volunteer residents time their visits to town with low tides, and encourage tourists to do the same.

"This is an island," said Judith Cade, who volunteers as a keeper and tour guide with her husband, Gene. "When the tide is in, we're stranded here six to seven hours at a time."

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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